Look at Life: Procrastination

18th October 2019

Are You a Dawdler or a Doer?

By Claire Moulds

My (Irish) husband terms the habit ‘putting it on the long finger’, while I’m more likely to accuse someone of ‘dragging their heels’. Either way, it’s clear that many of us struggle to get going these days, finding innumerable reasons to put something off until later.

‘Give me ten more minutes and then I’ll get cracking on it…’

‘I’ll do it tomorrow, I promise…’

‘It’s nearly the weekend. I’ll make it a priority job for Monday…’

I’m a serial offender when it comes to procrastination. While my neatly written ‘to do’ lists and daily, weekly and monthly planners mean that I know exactly what I should be doing, I find it all too easy to get side-tracked by something more interesting on my list of jobs – carefully avoiding the one that needs doing as a priority – or I simply struggle to muster enough motivation to make a start.

And I’m not alone.

A recent survey by the Nationwide Building Society found that a whopping 63% of us identify as procrastinators, with men and the young the most likely to let the grass grow under their feet.

Unsurprisingly, technology was singled out as the great enabler: checking phones, watching television and browsing social media were named as the top three things that people do to delay the inevitable.

It’s not just our time that we’re wasting. Leaving things until the last minute is costing us money too – almost £30,000 each over an average lifetime.

Business is also paying the price. The ‘Great British Procrastination’ report by RateSetter revealed that the average Brit spends a staggering 218 minutes procrastinating per day, 43 minutes of which are during the working day, meaning that British businesses are losing out on nearly 10% of an employee’s average working week. At a time when the Government has made increasing the productivity of British workers a key priority, as part of its overall industrial strategy – given it’s an important driver of improved living standards over the long term – it’s a worrying trend.
It might not be our fault that we put things off, though. New research by the team at Ruhr University Bochum has shown that the brains of procrastinators are different from the brains of ‘doers’.

Notably, the former have more volume in their amygdala – the part of the brain that assesses the consequences of particular actions and warns us of potentially negative impacts – and less functional connectivity between it and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved with initiating action. The end result is that a person’s ability to act on something is prevented by their anxiety about the outcome.

However, while this might explain the behaviour of the ‘it has to be perfect’ procrastinator – who is either too scared to start a project, for fear of failing, or unable to complete a task fully, as they are never 100% happy with what they produce – it doesn’t necessarily provide an explanation for the other types of procrastinator that we all meet on a regular basis. I’m thinking of the ‘more to life’ procrastinator, who struggles to get going as there are simply more fun and interesting things that they could be doing than the job in hand – and the ‘there’s plenty of time left’ procrastinator who can’t summon the motivation when a project’s deadline is a long way off, or worse still, entirely up to them. Then there’s the ‘I’m just too busy’ procrastinator who can’t see the wood for the trees, as they’re unable to prioritise their tasks, and who will also often be heard saying ‘I just don’t know where to start’ because they feel completely overwhelmed. The ‘big picture’ procrastinator is someone who is great at blue sky thinking and making a strategic plan, but cannot for the life of them motivate themselves to put it into action. Last, but not least, the ‘seat of your pants’ procrastinator simply thrives on leaving things to the very last second, often because they feel that they perform better under significant time pressure.

Ultimately though, it’s not all bad news for us procrastinators. Organisational Psychologist Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania believes that moderate procrastination when it comes to solving a task can actually lead to you coming up with more creative and original solutions than if you simply got on with it straightaway. The basis of Grant’s argument is that, just because we don’t start work on something immediately, doesn’t mean that we aren’t thinking about it in the background, enabling our brain to be mulling over different ways to tackle the problem while we do something else. So, maybe a dash of procrastination could just be beneficial to the economy after all?

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